By John, a refugee from the Middle East

What images does the word “refugee” provoke in your mind? Maybe your thoughts are influenced by United Nations advertisements: you imagine a poor, hungry, homeless, uneducated, non-professional, who is miserably dressed. Or perhaps, affected by some media reporting in Hong Kong, you might think refugees are only “South Asian people” who had no jobs and money in their countries and came here to “dry up Hong Kong’s resources”?

But I’m none of those stereotypical images of refugees. I was a fireman, until I graduated from university as a Power Electric Engineer. Due to my job, I learned to drive cars, buses, trucks and cranes. Believe me, I didn’t want to leave my country and, when I had to, I didn’t choose to be in Hong Kong. I’m quite healthy and handsome, I have a lot to offer; I just want another chance to start a life, to be useful, to be happy and make others happy, to help, here or somewhere else; I don’t care as long as it is safe. It’s my third year here. The question is: why have I been here three years?

The current protection system

To answer that question I have to explain how the system works for refugees in Hong Kong. In order to claim asylum in Hong Kong, you must either arrive in Hong Kong illegally or overstay your visa. You are not allowed to apply for protection while you are on a legal visa, so that means the government’s policy forces you to commit a crime to be able to seek asylum here. The next steps are applying for the Unified Screening Mechanism, the government process for asylum claims, to receive immigration papers and then wait for them to call you for an interview and process the claim, which can take years.

During the long waiting time, refugees can’t work and they receive a little assistance which is not enough, and not given to us in cash (the equivalent of HK$1200 for food given in coupons; HK$1500 for rent given directly to a landlord, if you can find one who is willing to rent to a refugee; and less than HK$500 for other expenses, including transport and utilities). This policy puts refugees under huge pressure.

Firstly, our mental health suffers as we don’t know if we are safe or not, because immigration may reject our case and send us back to our countries. Secondly, we have to live far away from our countries, from family and friends, and we are isolated in Hong Kong because we cannot afford to socialise. As you know, in Hong Kong, people meet in restaurants, bars, coffee shops or other places which require spending money we don’t have for transportation and buying food or drink.

Also, adult refugees are not allowed to go to school or university so we have to stay alone and do nothing; we cannot even use government facilities like public swimming pools or libraries, as our immigration identification paper is not recognised. This is another source of depression; feeling useless is sad when you know you can do so much more. It feels bad to live off someone else’s taxes when you know you could contribute if you had the chance. If I had space in this blog to write more, there is so much that I could say about the impact on physical and mental health.

What if it was you?

So I want you to be in our shoes for a moment; you are alone for a long time and you need money to survive and stay healthy. After so long surviving on the government’s insufficient assistance package, you feel forced to consider other options to meet your needs. If you want to work illegally, it will be a very hard job for long hours, without food and insurance, and the payment would be very low; if you get caught, the penalty can be between 15 months to three years in prison, and of course you fear that this might cause you to lose your case and be deported back to your dangerous country. Maybe you find yourself thinking of other ways to survive.  You don’t know how much longer you have to wait for your claim to be processed. Can you tolerate the unknown waiting time, the constant forced dependency, not being able to provide for your family, the possibility of going mad with stress and losing your time? Will you risk trying to work illegally? Will you risk your life and go back home? Will you find your money through other ways? And whatever choice you make, who will you blame? Does this system force you to be a criminal?

Speeding up the process

I have been here for so long because the government claims that they can’t manage refugees because of the costs and the huge numbers of them. However, there are only around 10,000 refugees in Hong Kong, which accounts for less than 1% of Hong Kong’s population. A government that can manage more than 7 million people in this little space can surely manage 1% of that number? The question is: do they want to manage it? Compared with the overall number of refugees in the world, this number is almost nothing. This number is increasing, not because a lot of refugees are coming here, but because not many are being processed through the system or resettled. They have no choice but to stay here and wait.

About costs, we know that the money to run the USM and support refugees may come from people’s taxes. The longer the government takes to process our claims, the more expensive it is. So Hong Kong people are losing money in this game; money which is valuable but can be earned again. On the other hand, refugees don’t get enough assistance and they also lose their time which is not refundable. For example, I lost my early 30s here and that is priceless. So who are the winners?

If this system has no benefit for the Hong Kong people, government or refugees, why keep it?  If you were a refugee and you knew that your case would be processed fairly and efficiently in three to six months, would you care about fighting for the right to work or study? I personally would not need to ask for money or assistance if I knew that I did not have to wait for years.

In such a system, refugees like me would be safe and would not have to wait years and years for a decision, the public would not lose their tax money and the government would not need to struggle with the refugee issue; we can all be winners.

What do you think?


John is a refugee in Hong Kong. Like many people seeking asylum here who have fled from persecution and grave human rights abuses in their countries of origin, he faces real security risks and is in a vulnerable situation in Hong Kong. For reasons of confidentiality and in order to protect his identity, his real name, country of origin and biographical details have not been disclosed.